PMQs is drawing to a close. Crash. Smash. Thud. That is the sound of a prime minister caught in an elephant trap – and one of his own making.
This was supposed to be a trap for the opposition parties. The dividing line to end all dividing lines. Labour invests, Tories cut. It sounds so very simple and easy for the public to understand.
But as I pointed out exactly one week ago, the premise is based on the idea that the public can be fooled. It is fundamentally dishonest. And Gordon Brown now seems to be trapped in a far from ideal tactical position.
Again and again at PMQs just now, Brown repeated the line; the Tories would cut investment by 10 per cent, Labour would invest. “That is the party that would cut the vital public services at a time of recession,” he claimed.
They “would cut by 10 per cent savagely and that is not going to be allowed to happen.” And “the Conservatives are going to cut spending on housing, education, policing”.
As almost everyone has now pointed out, Labour’s own cuts – in real terms and taking into account higher benefit payments etc – will be of a similar order, if not necessarily quite so severe, depending on which crucial services are ring-fenced. Why: because the public finances are rapidly deteriorating. It’s not rocket science.
During PMQs Brown refused to admit that capital investment will decline over the next three years, a fact laid out in the Treasury’s own documents.
Instead, pressed again and again by David Cameron, he talked about the high capital investment of the last two years. A relevant point, of course (the figure for this year is a whopping £44bn). But it failed comprehensively to answer the question (the figure for 2012 will be just £26bn) and left the prime minister looking slippery once again.
It was left to Nick Clegg to remind MPs and the public that whoever is running the country from 2010 will face stark choices in future expenditure. “Nobody is fooled by his trick of dressing up cuts as investment,” he said.
The question from now on is this: Will Brown remain in the elephant trap, thrashing around? Will he moderate his argument to be rather more honest? Or are we going to get the same binary debate, every week, until the next general election?
Fraser Nelson at the Spectator has a good chart which shows the future path of capital investment.
James Kirkup at the Telegraph claims to have heard Brown admit at one point that capital spending would fall. Clearly a “blink or you’ll miss it” moment. Will check Hansard tomorrow.